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The Book Trail: From North to East

I am beginning this particular edition of The Book Trail with a travel book I read at the end of last year, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to collate this list.

 

97818469734201. Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home by Malachy Tallack
‘The sixtieth parallel marks a borderland between the northern and southern worlds. Wrapping itself around the lower reaches of Finland, Sweden and Norway, it crosses the tip of Greenland and the southern coast of Alaska, and slices the great expanses of Russia and Canada in half. The parallel also passes through Shetland, where Malachy Tallack has spent most of his life.  In Sixty Degrees North, Tallack travels westward, exploring the landscapes of the parallel and the ways that people have interacted with those landscapes, highlighting themes of wildness and community, isolation and engagement, exile and memory.  Sixty Degrees North is an intimate book, one that begins with the author’s loss of his father and his own troubled relationship with Shetland, and concludes with an acceptance of loss and an embrace — ultimately a love — of the place he calls home.’

 

2. Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson
‘In 1937, Adam Nicolson’s father answered a newspaper ad—“Uninhabited islands for sale. Outer Hebrides, 600 acres . . . Puffins and seals. Apply . . . ”.  In this radiant and powerful book, Adam describes, and relives, his love affair with this enchantingly beautiful property, which he inherited when he was twenty-one. As the islands grew to become the most important thing in his life, they began to offer him more than escape, giving him “sea room”—a sailing term Nicolson uses to mean “the sense of enlargement that island life can give you.”  The Shiants—the name means holy or enchanted islands—lie east of the Isle of Lewis in a treacherous sea once known as the “stream of blue men,” after the legendary water spirits who menaced sailors there. Crowned with five-hundred-foot cliffs of black basalt and surrounded by tidal rips, teeming in the summer with thousands of sea birds, they are wild, dangerous, and dramatic—with a long, haunting past. For millennia the Shiants were a haven for those seeking solitude—an eighth-century hermit, the twentieth-century novelist Compton Mackenzie—but their rich, sometimes violent history of human habitation includes much more. Since the Stone Age, families have dwelled on the islands and sailors have perished on their shores. The landscape is soaked in centuries-old tales of restless ghosts and ancient treasure, cradling the heritage of a once productive world of farmers and fishermen.  In passionate, keenly precise prose, Nicolson evokes the paradoxes of island life: cut off from the mainland yet intricately bound to it, austere yet fertile, unforgiving yet bewitchingly beautiful.  Sea Room does more than celebrate and praise this extraordinary place. It shares with us the greatest gift an island can bestow: a deep, revelatory engagement with the natural world.’

 

3. A Writer’s House in Wales by Jan Morris 61044
‘Through an exploration of her country home in Wales, acclaimed travel writer Jan Morris discovers the heart of her fascinating country and what it means to be Welsh. Trefan Morys, Morris’s home between the sea and mountains of the remote northwest corner of Wales, is the 18th-century stable block of her former family house nearby. Surrounding it are the fields and outbuildings, the mud, sheep, and cattle of a working Welsh farm.  She regards this modest building not only as a reflection of herself and her life, but also as epitomizing the small and complex country of Wales, which has defied the world for centuries to preserve its own identity. Morris brilliantly meditates on the beams and stone walls of the house, its jumbled contents, its sounds and smells, its memories and inhabitants, and finally discovers the profoundest meanings of Welshes.’

 

4. Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (review here)
‘Novelist Sarah Moss had a childhood dream of moving to Iceland, sustained by a wild summer there when she was nineteen. In 2009, she saw an advertisement for a job at the University of Iceland and applied on a whim, despite having two young children and a comfortable life in an English cathedral city. The resulting adventure was shaped by Iceland’s economic collapse, which halved the value of her salary, by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull and by a collection of new friends, including a poet who saw the only bombs fall on Iceland in 1943, a woman who speaks to elves and a chef who guided Sarah’s family around the intricacies of Icelandic cuisine.  Sarah was drawn to the strangeness of Icelandic landscape, and explored hillsides of boiling mud, volcanic craters and fissures, and the unsurfaced roads that link remote farms and fishing villages in the far north. She walked the coast path every night after her children were in bed, watching the northern lights and the comings and goings of migratory birds. As the weeks and months went by, the children settled in local schools and Sarah got to know her students and colleagues, she and her family learned new ways to live.’

 

1121185. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Erlich
‘For the last decade, Gretel Ehrlich has been obsessed by an island, a terrain, a culture, and the treacherous beauty of a world that is defined by ice. In This Cold Heaven she combines the story of her travels with history and cultural anthropology to reveal a Greenland that few of us could otherwise imagine.  Ehrlich unlocks the secrets of this severe land and those who live there; a hardy people who still travel by dogsled and kayak and prefer the mystical four months a year of endless darkness to the gentler summers without night. She discovers the twenty-three words the Inuit have for ice, befriends a polar bear hunter, and comes to agree with the great Danish-Inuit explorer Knud Rasmussen that “all true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of man, in great solitudes.”  This Cold Heaven is at once a thrilling adventure story and a meditation on the clarity of life at the extreme edge of the world.’

 

6. Hearing Birds Fly by Louisa Waugh
Hearing Birds Fly is Louisa Waugh’s passionately written account of her time in a remote Mongolian village. Frustrated by the increasingly bland character of the capital city of Ulan Bator, she yearned for the real Mongolia and got the chance when she was summoned by the village head to go to Tsengel far away in the west, near the Kazakh border. Her story completely transports the reader to feel the glacial cold and to see the wonders of the Seven Kings as they steadily emerge from the horizon.  Through her we sense their trials as well as their joys, rivalries and even hostilities, many of which the author shared or knew about. Her time in the village was marked by coming to terms with the harshness of climate and also by how she faced up to new feelings towards the treatment of animals, death, solitude and real loneliness, and the constant struggle to censor her reactions as an outsider. Above all, Louisa Waugh involves us with the locals’ lives in such a way that we come to know them and care for their fates.’

 

7. Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin 79793
‘Over the years the American writer Emma Larkin has spent traveling in Burma, also known as Myanmar, she’s come to know all too well the many ways this brutal police state can be described as “Orwellian.” The life of the mind exists in a state of siege in Burma, and it long has. But Burma’s connection to George Orwell is not merely metaphorical; it is much deeper and more real. Orwell’s mother was born in Burma, at the height of the British raj, and Orwell was fundamentally shaped by his experiences in Burma as a young man working for the British Imperial Police. When Orwell died, the novel-in-progress on his desk was set in Burma. It is the place George Orwell’s work holds in Burma today, however, that most struck Emma Larkin. She was frequently told by Burmese acquaintances that Orwell did not write one book about their country – his first novel, Burmese Days – but in fact he wrote three, the “trilogy” that included Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. When Larkin quietly asked one Burmese intellectual if he knew the work of George Orwell, he stared blankly for a moment and then said, “Ah, you mean the prophet!”  In one of the most intrepid political travelogues in recent memory, Emma Larkin tells of the year she spent traveling through Burma using the life and work of George Orwell as her compass. Going from Mandalay and Rangoon to poor delta backwaters and up to the old hill-station towns in the mountains of Burma’s far north, Larkin visits the places where Orwell worked and lived, and the places his books live still. She brings to vivid life a country and a people cut off from the rest of the world, and from one another, by the ruling military junta and its vast network of spies and informers. Using Orwell enables her to show, effortlessly, the weight of the colonial experience on Burma today, the ghosts of which are invisible and everywhere. More important, she finds that the path she charts leads her to the people who have found ways to somehow resist the soul-crushing effects of life in this most cruel police state. And George Orwell’s moral clarity, hatred of injustice, and keen powers of observation serve as the author’s compass in another sense too: they are qualities she shares and they suffuse her book – the keenest and finest reckoning with life in this police state that has yet been written.’

 

8. The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong by Edward Gargan
‘Along the Mekong, from northern Tibet to Lijiang, from Luang Prabang to Phnom Penh to Can Lo, I moved from one world to another, among cultural islands often ignorant of each other’s presence. Yet each island, as if built on shifting sands and eroded and reshaped by a universal sea, was re-forming itself, or was being remolded, was expanding its horizons or sinking under the rising waters of a cultural global warming. It was a journey between worlds, worlds fragiley conjoined by a river both ominous and luminescent, muscular and bosomy, harsh and sensuous.  From windswept plateaus to the South China Sea, the Mekong flows for three thousand miles, snaking its way through Southeast Asia. Long fascinated with this part of the world, former New York Times correspondent Edward Gargan embarked on an ambitious exploration of the Mekong and those living within its watershed. The River’s Tale is a rare and profound book that delivers more than a correspondent’s account of a place. It is a seminal examination of the Mekong and its people, a testament to the their struggles, their defeats and their victories.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are you planning to add to your TBR list?

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‘The Shortest History of Germany’ by James Hawes *

Whilst in Munich with my boyfriend in February of last year, I mentioned that I’d love to learn more about German history. I have a sound grasp of it from the Weimar Republic up until the fall of the Berlin Wall, and have studied the period between 1914 and 1945 intensively, but I knew very little about earlier eras. James Hawes’ The Shortest History of Germany therefore sounded as though it would be perfect to fill in those gaps.

9781910400739It rings alarm bells for me when history books do not include a bibliography or list of sources, and this omits both entirely. There are no footnotes to denote where a quote has been taken from, and sometimes things are quoted – in italics! – in the main body of text which do not include even the reference of the author’s name. Had I noticed this before purchasing The Shortest History of Germany, it would have gone straight back onto the shelf.

The placing of text, maps, and diagrams here is so awkward, and makes for an unpleasant reading experience. Every pictorial source has been placed into the main body of text, sometimes randomly and without commentary, and therefore some of the text has been rendered into a column. I really did not enjoy the format, and think it would been easier to read, and more accessible, had all of the non-textual sources been grouped together on glossy paper, something most other history books include as a matter of course. This is not my only qualm in this respect, because many of these sources were poor in quality, and therefore the text was blurred. Most of them added very little to the book.

The way in which the quotes were not embedded in the main body of text, but appeared randomly in greyscale boxes – again, with barely a source to denote where they had been found – was annoying and unnecessary. I did not enjoy Hawes’ writing style at all, and did not appreciate the constant references which he tried to draw between particular elements of German history and the present day. This made it feel even fluffier than a history book with no appendix or bibliography already feels.

Whilst The Shortest History of Germany has a relatively linear structure, the way in which it has been partitioned into sections is odd. Hawes’ commentary felt as though it was all over the place due to the way in which what he includes here has both been set out and handled. I did read it all the way through, but only because it is such a short book; on reflection, I wish I hadn’t bothered. The book, as one might expect, is incredibly brief, and not at all comprehensive. Far more attention was focused upon the twentieth-century than anything else, and whilst I can understand this to a point, it made the whole feel highly uneven. It also became far more biased as time went on, and his tone felt patronising at points.

I’d like to say that I learnt a lot from this book, but as there is no concrete evidence to show what Hawes had read – if anything! – before compiling it, I found myself mistrustful. If it had been submitted as even an undergraduate thesis, I doubt it would have received a very good mark, with the unnecessary omission of the bibliography, and its quite clumsy writing at times. It feels almost as though Hawes has chosen to include so many charts, graphs, maps, and newspaper clippings – many of which are barely legible – in order to detract from his often skewed perspectives and cursory mentions of really rather important things.

There are many short books which I have read that effectively give the history of a particular topic in succinct and immersive ways, and which also include a comprehensive list of sources for further reading. The omission of such an important thing here was a mistake. In consequence, I will never read anything of Hawes’ again, as I am unsure whether I can trust what he includes.

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‘Avenging Angels: Soviet Women Snipers on the Eastern Front (1941-45)’ by Lyuba Vinogradova ***

As anyone who knows me only vaguely will be aware, I am absolutely fascinated by anything to do with Russia, and am particularly keen on Russian history.  I was therefore most intrigued by Lyuba Vinogradova’s Avenging Angels, which features many different accounts of women who worked as snipers for the Russian Army during the Second World War.  The book has been translated from its original Russian by Arch Tait, and features an introduction written by Anna Reid.  First published in 2017, Avenging Angels is the author’s third book.  It is supposed to act as a companion volume to Vinogradova’s Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler’s Aces, but I do not feel as though reading one before the other is necessary; this book does not even reference the author’s previous work.

9780857051998The Irish Independent calls the book ‘a powerful and moving account of women rising up to take arms, free their country – and, paradoxically, assert their common humanity.’  The Times believes it to be ‘well-written, engaging and enlightening’.  Certainly, the existence of such a tome is invaluable, reflecting as it does the huge war effort which the Soviet Union made during the 1940s.  In her introduction, Reid cites: ‘The Soviet Union sent more women into combat during the Second World War than any other nation before or since.’

The women who were trained as snipers ‘came from every corner of the U.S.S.R. – factory workers, domestic servants, teachers and clerks, and few were older than twenty.  With their country on its knees, and millions of its mean already dead, grievously wounded or in captivity, from 1942 onwards thousands of Soviet women were trained as snipers.’  Indeed, the estimated figures of the numbers of Soviet women who worked in some capacity for the war effort are astonishing, ranging between 579,000-800,000 serving in the Red Army, and rising to over a million when one considers female partisans, volunteers, and civilian militias.  Many women began by taking jobs in factories, or in the realm of civil defence.  After the ‘full-scale conscription of women into the military’ began in March 1942, women became ‘fully integrated into all services.’  Those who chose to bear arms were a ‘substantial minority’, writes Reid.

Many countries were sceptical about the women’s role in the war effort, but in Russia, a positive consequence of Communist rule was that everyone was, essentially, viewed as equals.  Vinogradova writes: ‘… it did not see strange to anyone that an extensive mobilisation of women for the army should take place.’  Russia’s women snipers were so numerous that they formed many platoons, consisting of around thirty individuals each.  They were subsequently sent to ‘accompany regular units’ on the battlefield.

Here, the focus of the book is on the ‘interviews with women who took on some of the war’s most high-profile combat roles – as fighter and bomber pilots, and as snipers.’  Vinogradova assert that it is not her attention ‘to assess their contribution to the war effort, nor to Soviet gender politics, but to capture their individual stories, the particular lived experiences that are left out of conventional’ history writing about wartime.  She goes on to say of the women she interviewed: ‘My heart went out to them, I pitied them in their old age and infirmity, but all the while I was listening out for an answer to one particular question: were they tormented by the thought of the lives they had taken?’  As well as the interviews which she herself conducts, Vinogradova also includes fragments of letters and diaries, which add depth to the whole.

Vinogradova discusses at points how Russia was viewed by the wider world during the Second World War, which I found fascinating.  She tells us: ‘Russia, which until very recently had been considered a rogue state, a secretive, backward, aggressive colossus that had made a pact with the Germans and attacked neighbouring countries in order to seize territory, was now being viewed quite differently.  It was a land desperately fighting a powerful and ruthless aggressor…  Russia was on everybody’s mind and many families identified closely with the victories of the Red Army.’

The stories of so many women have been factored into Avenging Angels.  Sadly, whilst some are rather in-depth studies of what the entire war was like for a particular woman, others are mentioned only once, or take up just one or two paragraphs.  This created a feeling of imbalance in the book.  Clearly though, the author is both passionate and understanding toward them, and whilst she occasionally poses questions about the effects which war, and seeing friends and comrades killed, must have had on the young women, she never appears judgemental of their choices.

I found parts of Avenging Angels fascinating, particularly with regard to the rigorous training which Vinogradova details: ‘In the barracks there was theory, which included ballistics and the characteristics of their equipment.  The girls spent a lot of tim outdoors, whatever the weather.  They were taught to dig different types of foxholes, to camouflage themselves and sit for long periods (as they might ahead of an ambush), to navigate terrain and crawl…  There were lessons in the additional skills needed for sniping: observation and the ability to commit the details of the landscape around them to memory, sharpness of vision and keeping one’s hands steady.  They were also taught unarmed combat techniques and how to throw a hand grenade.’

Of course, inevitable comparisons will be drawn between Vinogradova’s book and The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich.  I read Alexievich’s quite masterful work several months before picking up Vinogradova’s, and must say that I enjoyed it far more.  I felt that Alexievich’s work was better structured and more linear in its approach, which made a real difference in the reading experience.

I found Avenging Angels rather muddled at times; individuals were focused upon in one paragraph, and then Vinogradova switched very quickly to giving a barrage of facts about the general state of the war, only to come back to the individual again a while later.  This approach meant that reading Avenging Angels was a little jarring.  I also do not feel as though the introduction added anything to the volume.  Reid seemed to repeat chunks of what was in Vinogradova’s narrative, sometimes quoting figures and phrases verbatim.

I feel as though Avenging Angels would have been far more successful had it been set out in a different way, perhaps using each woman as a kind of case study, where everything about them could have been set out in one place.  This would have made it far less confusing, particularly as Vinogradova has a habit of referring to a woman she has mentioned once or twice by only her first name later on in the book.  The sheer number of women included here is staggering; it perhaps might have been better had Vinogradova paid attention to just a handful of them instead.  Another qualm is the quite odd way in which the author often introduces the woman in question; she almost always begins with the ‘good and bad’ points of a woman’s physical appearance, which, of course, has no bearing on her experience or ability as a sniper, and thus seemed rather redundant.

As I was reading, I was constantly aware, too, that Avenging Angels is a translated book; some of the phrasing is odd, or clumsy.  There are also occasional slips from the past to the present tense, which added to this.  My feeling is that the translator could have done more in order to make the work a more fluid, and therefore less confusing, piece.

It took a while, certainly, for me to get used to what felt like quite a haphazard approach in places, but I did find that it became a more immersive book as I continued to read.  To conclude, Avenging Angels is a fascinating and very worthy research topic, but it has been flawed in its execution.  Its epilogue also ends very abruptly, and seems to cut off with no real conclusion.  This made it feel somewhat as though the book had been rushed, which was a real shame, and which did, along with the other elements which I have pointed out in my review, dull my enjoyment levels.

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‘Bad Feminist’ by Roxane Gay **

9781472119735I have previously read Gay’s short story collection Ayiti, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Her writing has such a startling beauty to it.  I was therefore looking forward to reading her first collection of essays, Bad Feminist, and expected to be similarly blown away.

My interest was piqued particularly after I read the thoughts of one of my favourite authors, Elizabeth McCracken, on the book.  She writes: ‘Bad Feminist shows this extraordinary writer’s range…  Roxane Gay is alternately hilarious, full of righteous anger, confiding, moving.  [It] is like staying up agreeing and arguing with the smartest person you’ve ever met.’  Indeed, there is a lot of high praise surrounding Bad Feminist.  In the quotations published at the front of the book, Gay and her work are variously described as ‘alternately friendly and provocative, wry and serious’, ‘[She] playfully subverts the borders between pop-culture consumer and critic, between serious academic and lighthearted sister-girl, between despair and optimism, between good and bad’, and as ‘a necessary and brave voice when it comes to figuring out all the crazy mixed messages in our mixed-up world.’

The book has been split into five often overlapping sections.  Two of these concern Gay as an individual, and the others are ‘Gender & Sexuality’, ‘Race & Entertainment’, and ‘Politics, Gender & Race’.  In these essays, Gay deals variously with such topics as the language surrounding sexual violence, ‘The Trouble with Prince Charming’, homosexuality, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and Twitter.

In her introduction, Gay justifies her reasons for writing such a collection of essays, using the term ‘bad feminist’ as she is both ‘flawed and human’.  She posits, as one might expect, that in large sections of culture and the workplace, women are overlooked and subjugated: ‘Movies, more often than not, tell the stories of men as if men’s stories are the only stories that matter.  When women are involved, they are sidekicks, the romantic interests. the afterthoughts.  Rarely do women get to be the center of attention.  Rarely do our stories get to matter.’  I feel as though this all-or-nothing viewpoint is a little limiting, and can think of many films and books written before Bad Feminist was published, which do demonstrate the strength of women; the film Erin Brockovich is a striking example.

The style of Gay’s writing in Bad Feminist did not really work for me.  I found it rather repetitive at times, particularly from one essay to another, and some of the things which she said were, I felt, a little obvious.  Evidently, the book has been aimed at a general audience, but the odd balance struck between relatively highbrow, academic and data-informed writing and the chatty tone which Gay adopts felt a little awkward.  I also had an issue with the pop culture references which are used often throughout; they were, as one might expect, geared solely to a US audience, and I had no knowledge of some of the programmes and people whom she mentioned.

Bad Feminist was not at all what I expected it to be.  The beginnings of each essay failed to grab my attention, and I felt that sometimes more interesting points which Gay made were overlooked, or not worked to their full potential.  Few of the essay subjects really jumped out and grabbed me, and nothing had me on the edge of my seat as her fiction so often does.  Despite my largely negative feelings about Bad Feminist, I do intend to read her newest book of non-fiction, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture.

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‘Irena’s Children’ by Tilar J. Mazzeo ****

Irena’s Children, a biographical account of Irena Sendler, a woman who saved thousands of children’s lives in Warsaw during the Second World War, has been written by New York Times bestselling author Tilar J. Mazzeo.  I have been fascinated by Sendler since I first learnt about her quite a few years ago, but at the time, I found it very difficult to find any books which focused upon her.  I was thrilled, therefore, when I spotted Irena’s Children quite by chance when browsing in the library, and began it almost as soon as I returned home. 9781471152610

Known as ‘the female Schindler’, Sendler, along with a vast network of resistance members, saved over 2,500 children from the Nazis in occupied Poland.  At the outbreak of war, Sendler, a Catholic, had just received a Master’s degree in social work, and had found employment as a social worker.  She was therefore allowed access to the Warsaw Ghetto, an area which all of the Jewish citizens of the city were forced to move into.  The Ghetto, overcrowded and suffering from a lack of food and sanitation, was the cruellest of places.  Mazzeo describes it as follows: ‘An area of seventy-three streets in the city – just over four percent of the streets in Warsaw – had been reserved for the Jews, carved out from what had long been one of the poorest and most run-down neighborhoods in the city centre.’  At its height, the Ghetto held over 250,000 people, many of whom were sent to different concentration camps.

Throughout the pogrom, and until the liquidation of the Ghetto in May 1943, Sendler had to ask many parents to trust her with their children.  She then set out ‘smuggling them out of the walled district, convincing friends and neighbours to hide them.  With their help and the help of local tradesmen and her lover in the Jewish Resistance, Irena made dangerous trips through the city’s sewers, hid children in coffins, snuck them out under overcoats at checkpoints and slipped them through secret passageways in abandoned buildings.’  Sendler kept extensive lists of the children’s real names, hoping that by doing so, they could be reunited with their families after the war’s end.  Of course, this only happened in relatively few cases, as many of the children’s families were murdered in concentration camps, or in the Ghetto itself.  She wrote each child’s name, along with the names of their parents and their addresses, in code on ‘flimsy scraps’ of cigarette paper, which she hid as best she could.

The leaders of the Resistance recognised how valuable Sendler was, and set up a cell under her direction.  She was more than willing to use her own initiative, and work closely with others, in order to save so many Jewish children: ‘Irena had wanted an adventure and, knowing that they were fighting against their oppressor, even if it was dangerous, made her feel alive.’

Sendler evaded detection for such a long time due to her appearance, and even when she was captured by the Nazis and taken in to be tortured, they were completely oblivious to the fact that they had one of the key members of the Resistance network in their clutches.  They thought that, because she looked like a feeble woman, she must just be a minor player, and could lead them to the main orchestrators of the movement.  Sendler is described as a ‘feather of a person with an iron spirit: a four-foot-eleven-inch wisp of a young woman, in her late twenties when the war began, who fought with the ferocity and intelligence of an experienced general and organized, across the city of Warsaw and across the divides of religion, dozens of average people into foot soldiers.’

In her prologue, which opens with a moment in 1943 in which the Gestapo come for Sendler, Mazzeo is honest and fair: ‘To make her a saint in the telling of her story is, in the end, to do a kind of dishonor to the true complexity and difficulty of her very human choices.’  She goes on to say, in the book’s preface, that ‘Irena’s love life was anarchic and unruly, and she struggled with the knowledge that she was not a good wife or a good daughter.  She placed her frail and ailing mother in grave danger and kept the knowledge of those risks from her.  She was reckless and sometimes myopic… and, at moments, she was perhaps even selfish in her selflessness.’  Mazzeo pieced together Irena’s Children by using primary materials, as well as Sendler’s own recollections, and interviews with some of those whom she helped.

Sendler’s childhood, and her reasoning for wanting to help others, is documented fully, and is also well-situated historically.  Whilst there is a lot of information woven through Irena’s Children, and such a high level of scholarship to boot, the book is markedly easy to read.  Irena’s Children brings to the fore the story of an important, and incredibly courageous, woman, who risked her own life multiple times every day in order to help others to survive.  This biography, fascinating and harrowing in equal measure, should be read by everyone.

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‘Jacob’s Room is Full of Books’ by Susan Hill ***

I was so excited to read Susan Hill’s second reading diary, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, particularly as I so enjoyed her first, Howards End is On the Landing.  Released in 2017, Hill has set out to chart ‘a year of her life through the books she has read, re-read or returned to the shelf’.  I was expecting a similarly warming tone to the first instalment, as well as the excuse to fill up my to-read list with dozens more titles.

‘When we spend so much of our time immersed in books, who’s to say where reading ends and living begins?’ asks the book’s blurb.  In Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, Hill shows how ‘the two are impossibly and gloriously wedded.’  Her reading diary promises to be ‘full of wry observations and warm humour, as well as strong opinions freely aired…  a rare and wonderful insight into the rich world of reading from one of Britain’s most distinguished authors.’  The structure of Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is made up of small sections, all of which are arranged chronologically and slotted into monthly chapters, aiming to give one an insight into an entire year of reading.9781781250815

Hill opens by discussing audiobooks and ebooks, and what she believes to be the strengths and pitfalls of both.  She then touches briefly on what she thinks makes a bestseller, a theme which she comes back to again and again as the book goes on.  More themes along these lines, which tend to become a little repetitive, are Hill’s telling us about her own writing career, and giving advice to aspiring writers.

My main qualm with Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is that there is a lot of non-reading-related content throughout.  As opposed to Howards End is on the Landing, which is wonderfully bookish from beginning to end, there were quite a few points in the book when I wished Hill would stop mentioning her famous friends – often for little reason – and dig a little deeper into literature.  She is concerned throughout with those whom she knows from the upper echelons of society, and various members of the royal family make cameos in sections which have nothing to do with reading.  She does include quotes from other authors, or from books, but these rarely feel integrated well; rather, it takes one a little while to recalibrate and realise what Hill is doing.  She is, as the blurb says, opinionated in this book, far more so than in the first.

Regardless, there are some nice, and relatable, paragraphs about book collecting, and various tomes which she has returned to over the years.  A section which I particularly enjoyed takes place in February, when Hill feels the compulsion to reorganise her bookshelves.  She writes: ‘Not the weather for standing around more than two minutes admiring the spring flowers, the weather for clearing out bookshelves.  If we ever leave this house, we will not want to start doing it as the removal men are at the door.  I thought I had cleared out all the books I would ever need to lose five years ago, but books breed.  They beget second copies because you have mislaid the first and buy another, the day before you find the first.’  Another piece of writing which came across as warm and nostalgic involved Hill’s reminiscences about the joy of Ladybird books, after finding a box of forgotten titles from their catalogue in her attic.  Particularly given this, her lack of sentimentality in keeping books surprised me; I imagine it is quite rare with regard to other avid readers and people who call themselves collectors of books to have no connection with very few physical objects they’ve read, and have the ability to get rid of them with no problems.

The book, overall, has a disjointed feeling to it, particularly with regard to the first few months of the year.  In February, for instance, Hill begins her musings by talking about her greengrocer and how cheap it is to buy vegetables, and then she goes on to ask herself why she didn’t like fairytales as a child.  The next sections detail, in order, Hill’s spotting of some herons whilst out on a walk, a wish for snow, and a website featuring many lists of five books, all of which have been recommended by different people.  There are no connecting bridges to link the content; rather, it feels more like random day-to-day scribblings which have been taken straight out of a journal without much thought to how they fit together.  Stylistically, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is easy to dip in and out of in this manner, but when reading it all in one go, it does feel a little awkward.

I did enjoy Hill’s forays into nature writing, and felt that these worked well.  However, I cannot help but think the book may have been stronger had it been marketed in less of a misleading way as A Year of Reading, and more as a year in the life exercise.  Perhaps half, or maybe 60%, of the book is actually related to reading.  Some months do include more of Hill’s thoughts about reading and writing, but there are far less recommendations here than in the first volume.  The tone feels quite different too, and this is nowhere near as much of a cosy read as the first.

The balance in Jacob’s Room is Full of Books does not feel quite right, and some of the sections are so brief that they feel awkward to read.  I had hoped that it would be a continuation of Howards End is on the Landing, but it does not fill that criteria in its execution.  I found this volume disappointing on the whole; not what I thought, or hoped, it would be.  However, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books is still a quiet, meditative read, particularly with regard to the nature she captures, and the slower sections about literature.

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Two Memoirs: ‘The Argonauts’ and ‘Love, Loss, and What I Wore’

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson ** 9780993414916
I really enjoyed Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, and was quite keen to get to another of her non-fiction books; thus, I borrowed The Argonauts from my local library. From the outset, the writing here is intense, far more so than I was expecting. Nelson gives a series of short reflections or memories, along with sections of philosophical musing on her part. These are interspersed with more critical work on feminists and gender; yes, there is a lot of Judith Butler here. Whilst some of these short paragraphs continue their threads for a while, others are quite fragmented, and seem almost to have been randomly pieced together.

One cannot argue that Nelson is not a highly intelligent writer, but I must admit that I did not find The Argonauts an overly approachable book. It felt more like a piece of criticism which I would read for my thesis, rather than one which I could relax with in the evening. It took me quite a while to get into, particularly as the narrative voice jumps around so much: parts of this are addressed to Nelson’s partner, artist Harry Dodge in a second person voice; other sections of it use a critical, omniscient voice; and others still use the first person perspective.

The Argonauts is certainly an important memoir, but overall, I feel as though it was not quite to my taste. What appears in the book is not at all what I expected; The Red Parts felt far better put together to me. Some parts of The Argonauts appealed to me far more than others.

 

9781565124752Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman ****
I came across Ilene Beckerman’s quirky autobiography, Love, Loss, and What I Wore, when browsing through my Goodreads homepage. I had never heard of the book, or of its author, before, but was immediately intrigued, and set off to find myself a copy. Here, Beckerman’s memories are woven in with her own illustrations of what she wore at a particular time of her life, or for a special occasion. We see her Brownie uniform, rag curls, a ballet outfit, her confirmation dress, a circle skirt which she made with a friend, ‘typical underwear’ which she often wore on dates, the bridesmaid’s dress for her best friend’s wedding, and a dress she wore during each of her six pregnancies, amongst many others.

I loved the approach which Beckerman makes here, with a short body of text and an accompanying illustration for each essay. I found it a really interesting, and quite unusual, way in which to present a memoir. Along with her own outfits at given points in time, she focuses upon the people who shaped her too – what her elder sister wore to a wedding, for example, and her grandmother’s chosen hairstyle. Love, Loss, and What I Wore is quite a quick read, but a very thoughtful one, and I appreciated the dry humour which Beckerman has sprinkled in.

 

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